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Opinions differ as to whether the late William McIlvanney was the father, godfather, or simply the founder of Tartan Noir. Though he did not coin the term (that's attributed to the American crime writer James Ellroy), his Laidlaw series is universally acknowledged to have liberated Scottish crime fiction from tame gentility and to have been the inspiration for the likes of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, and Denise Mina, to name just a few. His Laidlaw series (LAIDLAW, THE PAPERS OF TONY VEITCH, STRANGE LOYALTIES), published over a period of close to fifteen years and rooted in Glasgow, established a thoroughly Scottish noir detective hero, flawed, cynical, literate, and sparely eloquent.
When McIlvanney died in 2015, he left behind, as writers tend to do, a pile of papers. What his widow, Siobhan Lynch, found among them was the beginnings of another Laidlaw novel, this one a foundation story presenting the detective early in his career when he was about thirty and still a detective sergeant. These were handed on to Ian Rankin, whose Rebus is something of a descendent of Laidlaw. As Rankin tells it, he initially doubted that he was the one to complete the novel, but after reading the notes, felt an obligation to try, if only to encourage new interest in McIlvanney's work.
It's impossible to say how much of the product of Rankin's labours, THE DARK REMAINS, is in fact McIlvanney, how much Rankin. The material Rankin was working from is variously described as notes and an outline to a chapter or more. They do not represent an early, abandoned attempt, however, but a late attempt to add to the series. One thing is certain - McIlvanney didn't say who the murderer was, so it seems Rankin had to solve the crime himself, which he does in a most satisfying way.
Certainly the meld between what is McIlvanney's and what Rankin's is seamless. Most particularly, Rankin succeeds in producing a convincing younger Laidlaw, one who sounds like the model, but a little younger, a tiny bit less cynical. The seedier areas of early 70s Glasgow are effectively portrayed, which is a technical triumph for Rankin, who knows Edinburgh best and anyway wasn't yet a teenager in 1972. Since I wasn't in Glasgow then either, I cannot spot any howlers and wasn't tempted to try. Instead I was fully transported to both time and place.
The main plot line involves the necessity to find out who killed Bobby Carter, a corrupt lawyer with gang connections, before war erupts between rival gangs. It's a common enough thread on which to hang a novel and is not really what keeps us reading this one. As Laidlaw himself observes, early on, "We know where a crime ends. It ends with a body maybe, a court case, someone going to jail. But where does it begin?" All experienced readers of crime fiction know perfectly well where the crime will end, if not who will go to jail. But what keeps us returning again and again to the genre are those books that pick away at the second question. Where does a crime begin? Some writers offer only glib or fatuous answers, but neither McIlvanney nor Rankin do. Instead both immerse the reader in a particular city at a particular date in which crime must occur and be dealt with, preferably intelligently. And both writers present that city and that crime in spare, impeccable prose.
Rankin maintains that his intention was not to write the first in a series of resurrected Laidlaws, but simply to finish the book that McIlvanney had started but did not have time to finish. In order to do that, he says in an interview in CrimeReads, he would have to "replicate McIlvanney's voice and vision. His writing style is more poetic than my own, his main character more of a philosopher than mine. It was important to me that this should read as William McIlvanney's world and not mine. In other words, I was attempting an act of ventriloquism—if the reader could see and hear me at any point, I had failed."
He has not failed.
Rankin also hoped that THE DARK REMAINS (a title both ominous and reassuring) would spark interest in the Laidlaw series that has meant so much to a horde of Scots crime writers. It should indeed. If you have read the series, you must not miss this; if you haven't, this is the perfect place to begin.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2021
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